The Scandal in Dalhousie Dentistry
Seen through Five Different Lenses
Kenneth Westhues, Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo
Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Academic Freedom & Scholarship, 9 May 2015, Western University, London, Ontario.
Last December, CBC broke the story of some raunchy posts on a facebook page shared by 13 male dental students at Dalhousie. The most quoted post was a survey question about which female classmate the students would like to "hate fuck." Readers and viewers expressed outrage, university administrators took steps to address the scandal, journalists reported on every step of the story, and pundits like Christie Blatchford, Margaret Wente, Edward Wilson, and Licia Corbella published op-eds.
This essay identifies five major lenses through which the scandal has been viewed. First, a lens that brings events into clearer focus. Second, a popular but distorted lens. Third, another lens that clarifies what is going on. Finally, two further blurry lenses. Five takes on the same subject, the first and third of which are illuminating and helpful, the others not so much.
(1) Virtual mobbing — yes
The first, most important lens is that of virtual mobbing, which means a nonviolent verbal attack carried out in cyberspace by a large number of people, whose object is the target's elimination from respectable company, symbolic death. In an earlier essay, I defined this quick, terrifying, cataclysmic phenomenon as “collective fury” centred on "some small, indisputable, repugnant bit of news – captured in audio, video or print. The news is oversimplified, taken out of context, blown out of proportion, imputed to nefarious motives, interpreted with least possible generosity, repeated over and over, and smeared on the target as an indelible stigma." Virtual mobbing is a metaphorical pillory in which the alleged wrongdoer is pelted with slurs.
Albeit under different names, this powerful new form of public humiliation has attracted much recent notice. The New York Times published last February Jon Ronson's gripping account of a young New York businesswoman who posted a quirky, ironic tweet from Heathrow Airport on December 20, 2013, just before departing on an eleven-hour flight to South Africa. By the time she landed, her name was mud around the globe, her job was toast, and her friends were mostly gone. Ronson's article was entitled, "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life."
With insight gained from personal experience, Monica Lewinsky described virtual mobbing in her speech at the 2015 TED conference in Vancouver. Especially valuable was her explanation of how the economics of social media encourage collective shaming: "How is the money made? Clicks. The more shame, the more clicks; the more clicks, the more advertising dollars … We are in a dangerous cycle: the more we click on this kind of gossip, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it. And the more numb we get, the more we click.” As for the effects of being mobbed online, Lewinsky proposed, "Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline."
In the Dalhousie case, militant feminists seized upon the raunchy facebook posts for their symbolic value, as an alleged example of misogyny and rape culture in universities. The mob that formed for demonizing and punishing the dental students had four major expressions. The largest was purely virtual, an online petition at change.org calling for the expulsion of all members of the facebook clique: “none of the students involved in the Facebook group called 'Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen' should be allowed to continue studying at the Dalhousie School of Dentistry.” By March 2015, this petition had over 50,000 signatures. The hacker group Anonymous weighed in with an online threat to name publicly all members of the facebook group unless the university would meet a long list of conditions by 5 January 2015, including steps to expel these students. Comments on news reports constituted a third expression of the mob, the thousands of mostly boilerplate anathemas hurled at the offending students. Fourth and finally, about 200 students held a rally on campus on December 19, 2014, protesting against the administration’s opting for a “restorative justice” process instead of a draconian penalty like expulsion. Temperance is not characteristic of mobs.
Virtual mobbing, obsessed as it is with eradicating some general, abstract evil, tends to harm not only the targets but their community. (Think of Ferguson, Missouri., which will be infamous for generations to come.) In the present case, all members of the 2015 dentistry class at Dalhousie, including the women, have been unnecessarily burdened with suspicion, doubt, and notoriety. The university’s refusal to name the 13 members of the facebook clique is understandable and defensible, as a means of sparing them still worse humiliation, but one effect is to put all members of the class under a cloud. The blame for this lies less with the administration than with participants in the virtual mob.
To its credit, the Dalhousie administration has so far rebuffed the mob's immoderate insistence on naming and expelling the members of the facebook group. I share the view of Brenda Morrison of Simon Fraser University, who “commended the school's administration for taking action that went against the public outcry for conventional disciplinary measures.” The Dalhousie administration has handled the matter at least more soberly and temperately than did the University of Ottawa administration, which suspended for one year its entire hockey team on account of allegations of sexual assault laid against two of the 24 players, and which now faces a lawsuit on that account.
(2) Rape culture — not so much
Now for a distorted lens through which to view the Dalhousie scandal. Maclean's columnist Anne Kingston is just one of the many commentators who have seen it as an expression of so-called “rape culture,” an alleged way of life on campus wherein rape is considered okay. This catchphrase has appeared in many press reports.
We should instead take at their word the six female dental students who were named in the facebook posts, who, in an open letter, objected to the segregation imposed on their male classmates in the facebook group, and wrote bluntly, “Many have asserted that all women feel unsafe, but this is not the case for us – we feel safe with the members of the Facebook group involved in this restorative process.”
I see no reason why they should not feel safe. In a culture as sexualized as ours, males indulge in all kinds of sexual fantasies. So do females, as witness the popularity of the book and film, Fifty Shades of Grey. Such fantasizing correlates weakly with rape, if at all. By the best evidence I know, the incidence of rape in the United States (I suspect also in Canada) has steadily declined in recent decades, to a level less than half what it was in 1980 – good news that some have attributed in part to the increased availability of pornography. The moral panic and hysteria over campus rape culture that lay at the root of the virtual mobbing of the Dalhousie dental students has little foundation in evidence – as dramatically shown by the gang rape hoax last year at the University of Virginia.
Rape culture is not everywhere a myth. The horrific gang rape at Vanderbilt University in 2013, and a similar one at the Steubenville (Ohio) High School in 2012, point to pockets of rape-tolerant culture among male athletes. Many lyrics of gangsta rap glorify rape. Citing U. S. government statistics, Steve Sailer, Lawrence Auster, and others have pointed out the overrepresentation of men from the black underclass among rapists of both black and white women. In Islamic terrorist organizations like ISIS and Boko Haram, as in many Muslim societies, also in India, one finds a popular and legal culture that sanctions rape in certain circumstances. By the available evidence, these are all a far cry from the prevailing student culture on Canadian campuses.
The perception of rape culture in the Dalhousie facebook posts may be due in part to simple misunderstanding of the phrase, "hate fuck," in one of the offensive posts. I suspect some commentators, being outside the debauched subculture in which this term is used, mistook it as a synonym for rape.
So far as I have been able to learn, the term was first used in 1986, by a short-lived rock band in Washington, D.C., named Pussy Galore, in the title of an extended play recording. The title was Groovy Hate Fuck. The term does not mean rape (see here or here). It means consensual sex, typically raw and rough, between two people who do not like each other. Dislike radically separates the sex from the affection, or at least passing fancy, with which sex is normally associated, and is thought to enhance thereby the pleasure of it. It can be groovy, that is enjoyable, for both parties.
I doubt that hate-fucking is as groovy in practice as in theory. Perceptions by the participants may differ. I see it as a sexual perversion, one manifestation of the decline Pitirim Sorokin described from an ideational to a sensate culture. It is in principle, however, an unforced perversion, not rape.
(3) Raunch culture — yes
If "rape culture" is a murky lens through which to view the Dalhousie scandal, a different sex-related lens is clearer, more helpful. This is the lens of "raunch culture," a lifestyle that undervalues restraint and discipline in sexual and other matters, as if the good life were defined by raves, hookups, slutwalks, and pride parades, one amusing diversion after another, without any long-term purpose to be diverted from. The dental students’ facebook posts exemplify raunch culture well: inane running off at the mouth, gutter talk in social media. Open to both sexes, raunch is a culture of cheap thrills and instant gratification. U.S. journalist Heather MacDonald hits the nail on the head: "What is the reality on college campuses? Not a rape epidemic, but a culture of drunken hook-ups with zero normative checks on promiscuous behavior."
As his best single explanation for the psychological distress and related woes of today’s western world, the British pundit, Theodore Dalrymple, has settled on “the collapse of personal self-control, which is now not only regarded as unnecessary but actively harmful, insofar as it leads to frustration, and frustration supposedly leads to yet worse consequences.” The dental students’ facebook posts exemplify precisely the “collapse of personal self-control” Dalrymple has described.
In its issue of 29 January 2015, Maclean’s published a telling letter by Corinne Leek, a Nova Scotia dentist. She said she began dental school here at Western in 1972, one of ten women with 245 male classmates. She said she “never heard, nor was confronted by, any of the misogyny exhibited this year at Dalhousie University. It seems society has regressed. It is beyond disgusting that these male students would fantasize about their classmates in such denigrating ways. I am certain that my classmates, way back in prehistoric times, would never have considered treating any of us gals in the class in such a vile way. In fact, I am certain that the majority would have risen in revolt at such talk.” Leek's view confirms my own recollection, as a professor who was teaching here at Western in 1972. Half a century ago, raunch culture had not yet infected our campuses so deeply as today.
What I'm suggesting here is that there was something wrong with the posts on the facebook page. It was not sanctioning of rape. Nor was it sexual harassment, by my reading of the evidence, despite the use of this label in an anonymous open letter and elsewhere. What was wrong was a degree of raunchiness beyond what a faculty of dentistry should tolerate.
Virtual mobbing does not imply that targets are wholly innocent. Maybe so but maybe not. The campaign last year against Tom Flanagan was based on false reporting of remarks he had made after a lecture in Lethbridge. As Mark Mercer commented at the time, Flanagan had nothing to apologize for. He had done nothing wrong.
In other cases, however, and I believe this is one, altogether apart from the clamor and contagion of the mob, the targets have behaved reprehensibly.
Dentistry is an applied science, a profession. Like other health professionals, dentists gaze at, examine, and act intrusively upon live human bodies. They poke, pull, twist, cut, inject, implant, anesthetize, prescribe drugs, cause pain, and otherwise treat patients for the sake of restoring and maintaining health. What is more, for the sake of medical or dental treatment, patients routinely expose the most private parts of their bodies, allow themselves to be rendered unconscious, and submit to intimate touching.
Anybody who goes to a dentist has a right to expect that the dentist has enough self-discipline and self-control to keep his or her mind on the job, and in particular to keep sex out of the practice of dentistry: not just to refrain from seeking sexual satisfaction in the guise of giving treatment, but even to block sexual fantasies thereof, let alone share such fantasies with colleagues.
Under the influence of raunch culture, the members of the facebook group displayed a lack of the necessary self-control. In their online forum, they collectively engaged in sexual fantasies related to their profession – to the point even of posting a photo secretly taken of a patient lying prostrate with buttocks exposed.
In a world more rational than ours, the Dalhousie facebook scandal would have been promptly and quietly resolved within the Faculty of Dentistry. The dean might, for example, have called together all 46 students in the class, informed them all of the raunchy posts in the 13-member facebook clique, and calmly explained why the clique and the posts are outside the bounds of tolerance in a school of dentistry. Members of the group would probably have fallen over themselves apologizing and pledging to exercise more self-control in the future. Then the dean, or the appropriate committee, could have assessed contributions to the facebook group by the members, one by one, and possibly applied some further discipline. The entire affair might have been over in a few days or weeks.
It has taken months instead of weeks, but the Faculty of Dentistry's Academic Standards Class Committee has indeed been addressing the unprofessional character of the facebook posts. This is reasonable. There are limits to how much raunch a health profession can put up with.
(4) Infringement of academic freedom — not so much
Observing the scandal through the lens of academic freedom, Mark Mercer has defended the students in the facebook group on grounds of this sacred value. His argument has the virtue of helping stave off the mob demanding the students' expulsion, but this comes at the cost of divorcing free speech in the academy from its purposes. These are above all the quest for empirical truth, producing ideas that square with evidence, both for intellectual satisfaction and for practical techniques of human betterment. A further purpose, implicit in SAFS President Clive Seligman's recent letter to the London Free Press, is to serve democratic values in university administration.
In my research on academic mobbing, I have studied hundreds of scientists and scholars who paid heavily for their exercise of free speech for these noble purposes. Some of them, Socrates most famously, lost their lives. Others, like Galileo, were humiliated and silenced. Ten years ago, Lawrence Summers was run out of his position as president of Harvard for speaking what he believed to be the truth about women’s underrepresentation in the sciences. Philippe Rushton barely survived the mobbing he underwent here at Western in the late 1980s, for publishing research findings on racial differences. By his book, Persona Non Grata, Tom Flanagan brilliantly repulsed the virtual mob that attacked him in 2013. Just last year, the National Post reported on the attack of an angry student mob on today’s featured speaker, Janice Fiamengo.
The Dalhousie dental students are in a different category from scholars like these. The words that got the students in trouble were not for the sake of democracy or a search for truth. The satisfaction these boys were craving was not intellectual or political. Academic freedom is irrelevant to the trouble they got themselves in. They were using words for an altogether different purpose, namely to titillate one another with sexual fantasies about female classmates.
John Carpay, of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in Calgary, was correct in telling CBC that the facebook posts are not the ideas that university rules on free speech are intended to defend. "What these students are talking about,” Carpay said, is “far removed from authentic academic discussion.”
I share the common respect for the sentiment about free expression attributed to Voltaire, that “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” So am I supposed to go to the wall defending the right of these guys to chat idly about hate-fucking female classmates, chloroforming them for a sexual purpose, and using one’s penis to turn lesbians straight? Gimme a break.
(5) Violation of privacy — not so much
Dalhousie dental student Amanda Oakley has viewed her male classmates' raunchy posts through quite a different lens, but one that also has the benefit of helping repel the expulsion-hungry mob. This lens is the value on privacy fundamental to a civilized society. Oakley has rebuked Ryan Millet, the member of the facebook group who brought his fellows’ raunchy posts to the attention of a woman named in them, and thereby precipitated their public exposure: "I think you should feel shame for ruining the lives of your trusted classmates...sure this content was inappropriate, but never meant to make it to the public...as one of two women in a class of 20...I would never betray the trust of my colleagues, my friends; even if I personally had been highly offended, with my feelings hurt....what a spectacle you have made of some crude joking...you won’t get a pat on the back from me...your [sic] a fraud among friends."
I have sympathy for Oakley's point of view. Privacy remains worth fighting for, however much it is undermined by digital technologies in today’s world. I was horrified last year by the virtual mobbing and public disgrace of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, on the basis of a secretly recorded private conversation with his girlfriend. And even though I deplore raunch culture, I have doubts about Dalhousie's punishment of undergrads for posting on the Dal Jungle instagram account some photos of students having consensual sex. If the police found no reason to lay charges, I think the university could reasonably have let well enough alone..
In three ways, however, the dental students’ facebook posts were not very private from the start. First, each was communicated by one student to twelve others. The more people you say something to, the less private it is. Second, the thirteen students were part of a two-year-old discussion forum that even had a name, “The Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen.” Every recipient of a post knew that the others received it, too. Within the confines of that little fraternity, the posts were already public. Third, the posts were not oral but written, with a record kept in cyberspace. Oakley is correct that the content was never meant to be public, in the sense of being broadcast on CBC, but it was never altogether private either.
What the facebook group amounted to was a secretive online clique of thirteen students, from a total of 46 in the class. Its existence was a matter of public consequence at least in that class. It is therefore too harsh to say Millet is a fraud among friends who betrayed their trust. He placed allegiance to the class as a whole and to dentistry ahead of allegiance to a deviant clique. That was defensible, especially since he identified himself publicly, accepted responsibility for his actions, and if I understand the facts correctly, had earlier tried in vain to have group members voluntarily remove the raunchy posts.
In an effort to make sense of the uproar over offensive posts to a facebook page shared by thirteen Dalhousie dental students, this essay has identified five lenses through which the scandal has been viewed. Two of the lenses are illuminating and clear, bringing the facts of the matter into sharp focus: virtual mobbing and raunch culture. Three of the lenses distort or blur the essential facts: rape culture, infringement of academic freedom, and violation of privacy.
The lens of virtual mobbing is the one I count most valuable, especially because it connects this uproar to many other ones in today's world. Mobs of whatever kind threaten our civilization to its core. They cause their targets unnecessary harm, and make it harder to resolve conflicts and rectify problems soberly, fairly, constructively. With the best of intentions, they encourage rash, unbalanced laws and policies. Careful scientific study of the new kind of mobbing enabled by computerized communication is therefore worthwhile.